Outside magazine, Travel Guide 1997-1998


Because bump-free is always better
By Ron C. Judd


Halfway up the first lift at Montana's Big Sky, the bronzed young cliff-dweller adjusted his backpack, ice ax, rope, and portable shovel, glanced with bemusement at my demo skis (sidecut: substantial), baseball-capped hairdo (sidecut: moderate), and wool-flanneled body (sidecut: well, never mind) and asked the inevitable question: "You going all the way to the top?"

Heli-skiing, sans heli: Grand Targhee, Wyoming
Targhee's (relatively) affordable half-day snowcat venture onto Peaked Mountain — a 10,230-foot Tetons peak reserved exclusively for this purpose — offers true heli-style powder skiing without ever leaving the ground. Or the ski resort, for that matter: Targhee's snowcats will pick you up virtually outside your base-village condo door. For a bit more, they'd probably come drag you right out of bed.

The top is the knife-ridge summit of 11,166-foot Lone Mountain, reachable thanks to a tram installed two years ago to placate Big Sky's extreme skiers and adventurer wannabes.

"Nope," I said, smiling and mentally reliving a dozen similar sheer-vertical adventures — with both good and bad results — on ski trips past. Been there, done that, had the surgery.

What this guy didn't know — and wouldn't understand — is that I long ago took the Cruiser's Pledge of Allegiance: One long run, unmoguled, with corduroy and justice for all. I tell myself that this was an educated — and an obvious — choice. After many years skiing all of the West and just enough of the East to learn not to bother, my sweetest ski memories take me back to oft-overlooked "lesser" trails like Elk Park Ridge on Big Sky's Andesite Mountain: long, steep, and wide open. Groomed to cosmetic perfection. Teflon smooth, slapshot fast.

And, ipso facto, bumpless. Any true cruiser can give you three good reasons to avoid skiing bumps: the top of the bump, the bottom of the bump, and all of what comes in between. We subscribe fully to the Warren Miller Theorem, which holds that every set of human knees is born with a finite number of bump-flexes. We simply prefer to reserve ours for truly life-threatening situations, such as the need to ski across ungroomed crud after taking a wrong turn en route to the Snorting Elk Cellar at Crystal Mountain.

Skiing was meant to be play, not work. And the entire goal of carefree cruising is fluidity and speed. Think about it: What do they do when they want you to slow to a crawl in the mall parking lot? Install a bump. The defense rests. If you agree that bumps are the bad rap song of the ski world, you already know the steep flats can be utterly symphonic. Few things in the world of outdoor sport are as sweetly synchronous as linking four dozen perfect GS turns on a freshly groomed cruisatorium. In the best of times, when the snow is cold but not hard and the brain is crisp but not controlling, the sharp steel edges of good cruiser skis literally hum like a bow across the fiddle-string ridges left by the morning groomer. Pure mountain music, for as long as your quads can pump out the rhythm.

This wintry harmonic convergence can happen anywhere, but only when the key cruising ingredients come together. Space — as in lots of it — is key. The idea is to ski, not think. Any need to perform a blind-spot check for a careening snowboarder is like a loud belch in the mental opera house.

That's why cruiser vacations at sprawling resorts like Utah's Snowbird and Park City rarely disappoint. Both resorts draw large crowds, of course, but they're spread out over long, wide, express-lane fast runs like Park City's PayDay and Snowbird's Bassackwards.

Lesser-known cruiser haunts such as Oregon's Mount Hood Meadows and Montana's Big Mountain achieve the same effect with premium grooming and — assuming you avoid holidays — smaller crowds.

Modern ski-resort hardware — more and better groomers, express lifts, and wide-sidecut skis — also makes a difference. All kinds of skiers are drawn to central Oregon's Mount Bachelor, for example, by its consistently dry snow.

But cruisers take special delight in Bachelor's speedy, high-tech lift system, elegantly coiffed intermediate runs, and an impressive gear-rental shop that now offers only shaped skis and other high-performance gear. Some Bachelor skiers get so many turns in such short order that they're gassed out by lunch. No problem there: The mountain sells pay-per-lift "point passes" that are redeemable for up to three years.

A scenic setting is the clincher for cruisers, who know that the perfect ski day is more about state of mind than technique. Cruiser bliss is often achieved on flat-out gorgeous blue-square runs like Ridge Run or Skyline Trail at Heavenly, which sprawls across the California-Nevada border and offers jaw-dropping views of sapphire Lake Tahoe. On sunny days in the Sierra Nevada, a Walkman loaded with Bob Marley, feet loaded with a pair of K2 Fours, and a mountain graced by acres of groomed corduroy are enough to induce drooling.

That is where and when you'll find us, skiing fast and living loose. All of you bump hounds — and I know a few of you are still reading, because you never cease to be amazed and/or appalled by us — should pay close attention: Some of us were smart enough to flock toward smoothness at a relatively young age. But age and inertia will conspire to put us all there together, eventually and inevitably.

It's just a matter of wear, tear, and time. No matter how hard you fight it, gravity always wins.

Head Gear
Hats are essential for comfortable skiing, but how they look is highly individual. My standard hats are the Patagonia Lightweight Ski Hat ($30) for all but the most disgusting weather, and the Orca Beret ($15), which is just enough to keep my head warm and protected from the sun. If making a statement is as important as keeping your noggin warm, Lowe Alpine's Aleutian 375 Builder Hat ($39) offers an updated Cossack look, and Shred Alert's Jester ($36) — well, the name says it all. Also from Lowe Alpine, the Atka ($22) is a welcome alternative to the tired pillbox look, and Shred Alert's version of the Tuke ($25) has its own distinct personality, accentuated by a variety of headband pattern choices. Orca's Tasha ($18) takes an updated pillbox design approach, its Gandalf ($17) offers traditional styling, and its Windbloc Fleece Ball Cap ($29) has fold-in ear flaps so you can give the nod to that ball-cap look without freezing your ears off. — S.C.

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